The Things We Lost in The Fire
"Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well."
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On this annual day of commemoration, the United Nations urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.
Before the Nazis started burning books, they banned them. That’s fairly common knowledge to those who have studied World War II and the Holocaust. Which specific books they banned and burned is less well known. Those details have been largely omitted from most history textbooks.
Magnus Hirschfeld was a German physician, researcher, and outspoken advocate for gender and sexual minorities. Hirschfeld maintained that sexual orientation and gender identity were innate human traits, and believed that an empirical, scientific understanding of these concepts would promote tolerance.
In 1897, Hirschfeld established the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the world’s first documented queer rights organization. The Committee’s main goal was to abolish Paragraph 175 of the German Imperial Penal Code, which punished sexual contact between men. In 1928, Hirschfeld founded the World League for Sexual Reform (WLSR). In addition to overturning Paragraph 175, the League called for reforms to marriage and divorce laws, the right to contraception and sex education, protection for children born outside of wedlock, and the legal, economic, and social equality of the sexes.
Most notably, Hirschfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Science in 1919, which was the first research facility in the world to study human sexuality and gender identity. As an openly gay Jewish man who advocated for sexual liberation, Hirschfeld’s lectures were frequently interrupted by right-wing activists. He was repeatedly stalked and assaulted, and suffered serious injuries from an attack in 1920.
On May 10, 1933, members of Humboldt University’s Nazi German Student Union and their professors helped Hitler’s Sturm Abeilung “brownshirt” paramilitary troops burn the works of hundreds of independent authors, journalists, philosophers and academics as part of a nationwide “action against the un-German spirit.”
Pictured in the pile above, going up in flames under Nazi salute, is the Institute for Sexual Science’s entire library and most of its archives. The Institute had been looted four days earlier. Hirschfeld himself was forced into exile in France, where he died in 1935.
Today, there is a monument on the square. A glass window is set into paving stones above an underground room of empty white bookshelves representing the 20,000 books and papers that were destroyed. Two accompanying bronze plates contain information about the memorial and an inscription from an 1821 poem by Heinrich Heine that warns:
“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
Nearly ninety years later, modern researchers are still trying to reconstruct and relearn the Institute’s discoveries in understanding the spectrum of human sexuality and its advancements in gender-affirming healthcare.
Heine Warned Us, But Did We Listen?
Before the pink triangle became a worldwide symbol of queer power and pride, it was intended as a badge of shame. In Nazi concentration camps, a downward-pointing pink triangle was sewn onto the shirts of queer men to identify and further dehumanize them. (Brown triangles were used for Romani people, red for political prisoners, green for criminals, blue for immigrants, purple for Jehovah's Witnesses, and black for "asocial" people, including prostitutes and lesbians.)
Queer men were treated especially harshly by guards and fellow prisoners alike. “There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste,” Pierre Seel, a gay Holocaust survivor, wrote in his memoir I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that 100,000 gay men were arrested and between 5,000 and 15,000 were placed in concentration camps. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 65 percent of those queer men died. Even after World War II, both East and West Germany upheld the country’s anti-gay law, and many queer people remained incarcerated until the early 1970s. The law was not officially repealed until 1994.
Right now, queer and transgender people, content, curriculum, and events are once again under escalating and increasingly violent attacks. The mere sight of a Pride flag, the image that replaced the pink triangle of death with a rainbow of solidarity and hope, is enough to set bigots into a pearl-clutching froth and start accusing everyone but themselves of indoctrination and child sexualization.
Conspiracy theorists are infiltrating school boards. Christian Nationalists have set their sights on local and state political offices. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito want to repeal same-sex marriage equality and bring back anti-sodomy laws. Public libraries are being defunded and classroom libraries are being removed. Proud Boys and other armed white supremacist groups are marching at Pride events and Drag Story Hours, and another queer-friendly nightclub has fallen prey to a mass shooter.
Genocide is a multi-step process. It starts with equating “different from” with “less than” and “dangerous.” It then proceeds from prejudice to open discrimination. Dehumanization becomes persecution. Ostracizing becomes elimination.
When Buchenwald was liberated in 1945, survivors and Allies said “Never again.” In this brave new year 2023, never again is right now.
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